A Texas man has been sentenced to prison after he posted false and threatening messages on Facebook about spreading COVID-19.
Christopher Charles Perez, 40, falsely claimed he paid someone infected with COVID to lick items at a H-E-B grocery store in San Antonio in an effort to ‘scare people away’ from visiting the stores, according to the Department of Justice.
‘My homeboys cousin has covid19 and has licked everything for past two days cause we paid him too. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED,’ Perez wrote on April 5, 2020.
His post was taken down after 16 minutes, the New York Times reported.
In a second post — which included a link to a news story about a store that closed after an employee tested positive for COVID — Perez wrote: ‘Lol, I did try to warn y’all. Nogalitos location next.’
That posted remained on the social media platform for 23 hours.
On Monday, Perez was found guilty of criminal false information and hoaxes related to biological weapons and issued a lengthy sentence that one law expert argued was intended to send a message to others.
Christopher Charles Perez, 40, falsely claimed he paid someone infected with COVID to lick items at a H-E-B grocery store in San Antonio (pictured) in an effort to ‘scare people away’ from visiting the stores
Perez was sentenced to 15 months in prison, three years of supervised release that requires him to seek mental health treatment and medication, and fined $1,000.
Although investigation and Perez’s confession revealed that his licking claims were false, federal officials argued that he needed to answer for his actions.
‘Those who would threaten to use COVID-19 as a weapon against others will be held accountable for their actions, even if the threat was a hoax,’ FBI San Antonio Division Special Agent in Charge Christopher Combs said in a statement.
‘Perez’s actions were knowingly designed to spread fear and panic and today’s sentencing illustrates the seriousness of this crime. The FBI would like to thank our law enforcement partners for their help in this case.’
‘Trying to scare people with the threat of spreading dangerous diseases is no joking matter. This office takes seriously threats to harm the community and will prosecute them to the full extent of the law,’ echoed U.S. Attorney Ashley C. Hoff.
However, retired judge and current Harvard Law School lecturer Nancy Gertner suggested that Perez’s sentence may be a bit extreme.
‘I’m sure the judge was intending to send a message to people who would be involved in like hoaxes, which is important,’ she told the newspaper.
‘The question is whether he needed to impose a sentence of this length to send that message.’
Perez’s lawyer, Alfredo R. Villarreal, filed a notice stating that he would be appealing his conviction.
Villarreal claims that Perez’s posts were ‘purely as a joke’ and that he had, ‘at worst, intended that people take the pandemic more seriously at a time when public gathering and mask hesitancy were continuing to frustrate public health officials.’
He also noted that Perez ‘broke down several times’ during a previous hearing and ‘expressed to counsel that he did not understand the proceedings’.
Villarreal also said that Perez repeatedly told the prosecution: ‘I am not a terrorist!’
Pandemic hoaxes have run rampant across numerous social media platforms in the past year.
Facebook has deleted more than 20 million fake COVID posts and shut down accounts belonging to 3,000 repeat offenders, according to CBS News.
The company has also reportedly flagged 190 million questionable posts with warnings and promoted factual vaccine information.
Perez’s conviction comes as former Facebook employee Frances Haugen came before a Senate Commerce panel on Tuesday to lay out a far-reaching condemnation of the social network.
Perez’s conviction comes as former Facebook employee Frances Haugen came before a Senate Commerce panel (pictured) on Tuesday to lay out a far-reaching condemnation of the social network
Frances Haugen (pictured) — who has accused Facebook of spreading misinformation and threatening children’s safety, as well as the integrity of democracy — urged Congress to increase regulations on the company
Haugen — who has accused Facebook of spreading misinformation and threatening children’s safety, as well as the integrity of democracy — urged Congress to increase regulations on the company.
She pushed for legislative measures that would remove the legal protections of speech posted on social media platforms in cases where dominant content driven by computer algorithms favors massive engagement by users over public safety.
Haugen, whose claims are allegedly supported by the Facebook’s own internal research, argued that the company knows that vulnerable people are harmed by its systems and has not made meaningful changes to prevent it.
She claims the ‘platform is designed to exploit negative emotions to keep people on the platform’.
Facebook denied the allegations, saying: ‘we do not and we have not prioritized engagement over safety’.